Orange County’s Tiki Bars of the Past and Present Help You to Forget About Your Boring Life

Illustration by Shag

Standing on what was a quiet orange grove more than half a century ago is a small faux grass hut. A diverse crowd gathers outside: tourists wearing mouse ears, children savoring the sweet tang of a frozen pineapple-flavored treat. Tiki enthusiasts drink in all the details of one of the last remaining sites of the Polynesian cultural phenomenon that popped up in the United States in the 1950s.

For the past 55 years, the hut has been home to the Enchanted Tiki Room, a small tropical oasis within Disneyland. The indoor attraction offers a short respite from the amusement park’s long lines and the summer heat. It was originally planned to be an interactive dinner show, with the use of Audio-Animatronics, the voices of Wally Boag (of the Golden Horseshoe Revue) and Thurl Ravenscroft (voice of Tony the Tiger), and an infectious theme song written by the Sherman Brothers (who wrote the theme for It’s a Small World, as well as songs from The Jungle Book). But when Walt Disney realized the show was so entertaining guests wouldn’t want to leave, he changed direction at the last minute. Dining tables were removed, and the chairs were rearranged to face the center of the room.

“It’s got that vibe, you know? You go in, and you’re transported to this complete world,” explains Josh Agle, a pop artist better known as Shag, who grew up in Hawaii but moved to Orange County in the ’80s. “Just the music of the place and just how well it’s put together . . . The other thing I like about it [is] it hasn’t been changed at all since 1964. That’s the only attraction in Disneyland that is identical to the way it was when it opened.”

Sadly, it’s the exception in a once-flourishing tiki paradise. Only two legit tiki bars remain in OC: Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar outside the Disneyland Hotel and the reopened Royal Hawaiian in Laguna Beach. The closing of Don the Beachcomber in Sunset Beach had tiki fans dropping tears into their mai tais in April. It shuttered thanks to redevelopment plans just days after celebrating its 10th anniversary with two back-to-back sold-out shows; owner Delia Wu Snyder is still looking for a new location.

“It’s too bad,” says Spike Marble, lead singer of the Hula Girls and owner of his own home tiki bar, which has been the scene of many backyard parties and photo shoots. “There’s a million clubs that don’t matter because of the lack of history or the look of them. Don the Beachcomber was a really special place; it was a place where people celebrated, had birthdays and special memories. We’re losing more than just a restaurant.”

But tikiphiles need not despair, as the culture of tiki bars has been making waves. Beer Belly in Long Beach recently opened TikiTiki behind its western wall; every Thursday through Sunday, you can order a delectable Frozen Bird or rum daiquiri. Even Coachella had a hidden tiki bar.

The rising tide of tiki fever since the mid- to late 2000s is a byproduct of the need to escape with as much regularity as the wave of economic and political uncertainty tends to bum out the masses. Its timeless cool has a way of erupting like a volcano every few years. “It’s such a weird, little arcane area of interest, you know?” Shag says. “But every year, Tiki Oasis sells out faster, and every year, another tiki convention or gathering is established somewhere in the United States. So, apparently, people are into it and more people are discovering it.”

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The Great Depression had been dragging Americans down its dusty daily doldrums for almost 10 years by the time Christian’s Hut, arguably Orange County’s first example of a tiki bar, opened on the sands of the Balboa Bay in the late 1930s. The economic devastation of a nation, coupled with news of yet another world war brewing in Europe, made Americans yearn for life in color.

Hollywood’s main export to a weary world was extravagant escapist films in bold Technicolor such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. It’s no coincidence these blockbusters took place in lands and times far, far away from what was then reality.

Though the 1935 Best Picture Oscar winner Mutiny on the Bounty was set on the island of Tahiti, it was filmed on Catalina. A bar named Christian’s Hut (after star Clark Gable’s character Fletcher Christian) was set up for the thirsty cast and crew. It also became a celebrity destination, luring the likes of famous Newport Beach-dwelling yachtsmen John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart.

When filming for Mutiny wrapped, Christian’s Hut pulled up anchor and followed its stars to the mainland, docking at Balboa Bay in Newport Beach. This watering hole gave the world the goofiest thing in modern tiki lore. Little is known about “The Goof on the Roof,” a giant statue of a tribesman in a headdress and baring crooked teeth, but the funny-looking fellow was a staple of the Balboa skyline as he sat on Christian’s Hut for several decades. (He can be seen today on Shelter Island in San Diego, atop the two-story, historic Bali Hai restaurant, which started in 1953 as the Hut, a spin-off of Christian’s Hut.)

Christian’s Hut billed itself as Tahitian-themed, but offered mostly coastal American fare, including its specialty pit-roasted prime rib (“made from our Chinese oven,” according to a vintage menu), and a bounty of traditional tiki cocktails such as the Dr. Funk and Singapore Sling. There were also punchy takes on the new craze of tropical island-inspired cocktails popping up at nightclubs Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, who took the term “dining experience” to bold new places.

“It is as famous for its informal hospitality as it is for its magnificent view of Balboa Bay,” explained one vintage cookbook of Christian’s Hut’s Pitcairn Salad Dressing. By “informal hospitality,” one wonders if the author is referring to the bar’s infamous way of booting ruffians. Bouncer Don Vaughn was known for picking up troublemakers, carrying them to the end of the pier that sat just outside the bar’s door, and dropping them into the Pacific Ocean.

The success of Christian’s Hut led to its expansion to locations including Laguna Beach (off Pacific Coast Highway) and Corona Del Mar (at the Jamaica Inn), even a short-lived spot in Honolulu. To accommodate the influx of high-caliber tourists, the Victor Hugo Inn (now Las Brisas restaurant) opened in 1938. Within those walls, OC’s next legendary tiki establishment was dreamed up: the Royal Hawaiian. Francis Cabang and a fellow co-worker at the inn established the Royal Hawaiian across the street in 1947. Inspired by his years of canning pineapples in Hawaii, Cabang, a Filipino immigrant, decorated the island-themed restaurant with tikis made by well-known carvers Milan Guanko and Andres Bumatay.

The Lapu Lapu (a potent potion of light and dark rums and passionfruit and orange juices) was the star of the cocktail menu.

“There’s a story that there’s a ghost here,” says Hasty Honarkar, who now co-owns the Royal Hawaiian. The owners and staff like to believe one of the original bartenders loved the place so much that he decided to stick around. “He must have really been passionate about the Lapu Lapus!” Honarkar adds.

Among a forest of palm plants, the restaurant’s large neon sign lit the Laguna Beach skyline for several decades, announcing it as a Hawaii-away-from-Hawaii. At the time of its opening, America was hungry to shake of the shackles of ration cards and war-relief efforts and ready to kick off a boom of businesses, babies and bars.

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Illustration by Shag

As the 1950s dawned, America looked to the skies for the promise of the future and across the Pacific for adventure. Orange County was slowly ripping out its roots as an agrarian county, one citrus tree at a time. Rumors began circulating that a famous animator was looking to buy land for a bold, strange new project in the heart of the county.

When Jack Dutton (who would later serve as the mayor of Anaheim) heard that Walt Disney was sniffing around Anaheim’s orange groves, reportedly with the idea of turning the acreage into some sort of an amusement park that would feature lush tropical lands and robotic jungle animals, he thought he could beat old Walt to the Hawaiian punch.

Dutton and his wife, Dorothy, already had a veritable menagerie of exotic animals in their home, the most famous of which—Jerry, the human-like chimpanzee—was like a son to the Duttons and the star of the Anaheim tourist attraction they built in 1952. Dutton’s Jungle Gardens featured a zoo, the A-framed Akua Motor Inn with its sky-high midcentury signage, and the Palms restaurant.

It was one of the few ritzy restaurants in the city at the time, where patrons dined on filet mignon among tropical foliage and palm trees bursting through the roof. “An exciting new pleasure of dining amidst the tropical splendor of a very realistic jungle,” explains one advertisement found in a 1955 Anaheim phone book. The joint was frequented by stars such as singer Eartha Kitt and Disney himself when he needed to get away from the stresses of building his empire.

But, according to Dutton, the real attraction was Jerry. Every morning, Jerry would wake up in the Duttons’ apartment above the restaurant, dress and groom himself, then go to the dining area. He’d place his breakfast order with the waitress, flip through the morning paper, and, when his food came, tuck a napkin into his shirt and eat with a knife and fork.

Behind the bar of the Palms was Ray Buhen, the legendary mixologist who worked at the original tropical bar in Los Angeles (Don the Beachcomber) in the ’30s and in ’61 opened the Tiki Ti, which is still operational.

But when Disneyland opened in 1955, Jerry the Chimp was replaced as the mammal mascot of Anaheim by Mickey Mouse. What Dutton originally saw as the Jungle’s one-up on Disneyland became Dutton’s Jungle Gardens’ downfall: Live animals were costly to keep in captivity and sometimes even dangerous; Dutton lost half a finger after a brutal bite from “Big Joe,” one of his apes. “I always told Walt he was smarter than me,” Dutton says. “He made his animals animated; I had to feed mine.”

While the masses flocked to the new Anaheim adventure, attendance dropped at Dutton’s Jungle Gardens, which was forced to shut its doors by the 1960s, at the pinnacle of tiki’s popularity. The influx of tourists (and their money!) Disneyland attracted to the area paired with the fortuitous timing of Hawaii’s statehood in 1959 created a perfect storm of tiki-mania on the mainland, especially in Orange County. Polynesian palaces sprung up all over: new restaurants such as the Kono Hawaii in Santa Ana, themed bowling alleys such as the sorely missed Kona Lanes (and its interior Outrigger bar), even mobile-home parks. A tragic fire to Surfside’s iconic Sam’s Seafood in 1964 allowed the eatery to shed the Art Deco architecture it had sported since the ’20s and be rebuilt with a tiki theme.

“Sam’s Seafood had horrible drinks and horrible food but great décor!” Shag recalls.

Before the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Tahitian Terrace, which opened next door in the early ’60s, the closest thing Disneyland had to tiki could be found within Adventureland, an original part of the theme park. Disney had called upon some of the best in the then-booming tiki business to give Adventureland an authentic feel: artifacts from Oceanic Arts in Whittier (relatively small in the budding scene, it would go on to become the go-to supplier of exotic décor in the world) lined the drawbridge into the land, as they do today.

“We supplied almost all of the Jolly Rogers in a nautical motif,” says the company’s co-owner, Bob Van Oosting. “[We more recently did] Trader Sam’s at Disneyland. LeRoy [Schmaltz], my business partner, carved the entry doors and post wraps for [the resort’s] Tangaroa Terrace. We also did 35 tropical shades and some artifacts for the interior.”

Legendary tiki carver Eli Hedley, who’s nicknamed “the Original Beachcomer,” was an early business partner of that other beachcomber in Hollywood, Don, who moved from his hut on the sands of San Pedro to the suburbs of Anaheim. Hedley owned and curated a tiki trading store next to Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise in exchange for helping Disney give the area an authentic vibe. (Hedley’s grandson is “Bamboo Ben” Bassham of Huntington Beach, a modern-day tiki carver whose name is synonymous with building world-class tiki bars, including the Don the Beachcomber reboot in Sunset Beach, the Royal Hawaiian’s recent revamp and the cult favorite Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas.)

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Illustration by Shag

As America rode the wave of Polynesian pop as far as it could in the midcentury, the tsunami of tiki came crashing down in the 1970s through the early ’90s. Many of the genre’s giants were revamped, shut down or bulldozed, as Orange Countians found their escape elsewhere.

But a small handful of young men kept the tiki torch’s flame burning. “It was me and two friends,” recalls Shag. “We thought we were the only three people on earth who liked tiki or collected tiki.

“We’d like to go to what we called ‘old man bars,’ which were basically theme bars that were kind of untouched,” Shag continues. “So some might [have] that kind of, like, gold-leaf-framed mirrors and red velvet . . . or some might have, like, this nautical theme or some might be tiki-themed. And that was our favorite.”

The trio sought to find every tiki-themed restaurant or bar still in Orange County. “One of the main reasons we liked going to tiki bars was because if you paid an extra $5, you got to keep the mug.” Shag’s collection now numbers around 400, stretching over several decades. Some mugs that once cost him 50 cents are now worth upward of $300.

Shag was partial to the tiki bars because they reminded him of home. “There was, like, that psychological thing, bringing [me] back to my childhood because in Hawaii, in Waikiki, which is where we lived, we were just surrounded by Polynesian architecture and tikis and Polynesian pop culture,” he says. “And then [we] moved back to the mainland when I was 8, and there was really not a lot of that. . . . Once I got into my early twenties, I felt a longing for that kind of faux-tropical, Polynesian lifestyle.”

It was during this time that the main draw of this dormant scene shifted from adventuresome to a different type of escapism: childhood nostalgia. And it’s this nostalgia that eventually saved tiki from pop-culture obscurity, allowing it to erupt upon the cultural landscape like a long-simmering psychological volcano.

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“This baby’s gonna blow! It’s the great eruption of . . . Mount Krakatoaaaa!” bellows a bartender in an orange aloha shirt that’s as loud as his voice. A fake air-raid siren cranks a warning to a perpetually crowded Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, as the lights get even dimmer. Thunder clashes, and outside the two “windows” of the tiny hut, a volcano erupts, lava oozing down the side of the mountain.

“Save yourselves!” he screams as he sets down a cocktail in a ceramic souvenir mug. The drink radiates a bright-red light in front of a woman at the U-shaped bar. Her fellow patrons loudly feign terror, playing along with the charade. The woman laughs with mildly embarrassed delight as she picks up her Krakatoa Punch.

Tucked behind the tropical foliage at the center of the Disneyland Hotel since 2011, Trader Sam’s serves as a small oasis from Disneyland proper. Its interactive features, including spraying squirt bottles at the customers to mimic choppy seas and sinking barstools (coupled with Jungle Cruise skipper-style jokes from the bartenders such as “Don’t you get short with me!”), have made this new generation of tiki bar a success. It picks up where Disney’s original vision for a tropical dining destination unlike any other left off. And Disney’s instincts were spot-on: There are often long lines to enter the 49-person “hut,” which diners are reluctant to leave.

Pop culture is currently experiencing what’s being called “the Summer of Tiki.” Craft cocktail bars such as 320 Main and the Blind Rabbit offer modern twists on traditional tiki drinks. Though the Royal Hawaiian closed in 2006, it reopened 10 years later with the support of the Honarkar family, who called in experts such as Bamboo Ben to help bring a new, different take on tiki to Orange County—what co-owner Hasty Honarkar likes to call “tiki chic.”

In Maori mythology, from which the term tiki originated, figurines were carved to mark sacred sites and remember ancestors. And though Orange County’s original tiki bars have shut down, burned down or been bulldozed, a new generation of bartenders and tikiphiles continue in their spirit.

“I’ve been to the South Seas, and it’s not like the inside of a tiki bar; it’s like this hyper-version of what that would be like,” Shag says. “It’s all fake, like Disneyland . . . [but] a bunch of fake stuff can still add up to a great experience.”

Surrounded by exotic music played by a Polynesian band, the beauty of a far-away land still has the ability to make us feel as if we’re anywhere we want to be. “That’s what initially appealed to me, you know?” Shag says. “I love just hanging out in a tiki bar, drinking a cocktail and just kind of soaking up that vibe.”

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